This old house: Anoka experience stirs debate on what's worth saving

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 21, 2013 - 2:11 PM

In recent years, Anoka’s Housing Redevelopment Authority used plummeting real estate prices to buy and raze six older, deteriorating homes in the city and rebuild on the lots.

Now that the housing market is improving, the program is over. Still, it has stirred debate about what’s worth saving.

“We at the HRA tried to look at the glass half full. We needed to take advantage of this unfortunate opportunity where values were so bad,” HRA chairman Carl Youngquist said. “We knocked down those homes and tried to improve the neighborhood, getting rid of blight. In my opinion, it was an improvement. We had neighbors thank us.”

How do communities decide what is worth preserving?

The National Register of Historic Places lays out standards for determining whether a building or structure is eligible for being listed, said Denis Gardner, National Register historian with Minnesota’s State Historic Preservation Office.

They include evaluating a structure’s historical importance: Did a significant event occur there? Did a significant person live there? Is the design significant?

It’s also about gauging a building’s historic physical integrity. How original is the building?

Even if a home or building doesn’t rise to the level of the Historic Register, it can still be worth saving, Gardner said. Often, it comes down to community values.

“If the community wants it saved and preserved, it happens. It comes from the weight of folks leaning on the city,” Gardner said.

Gardner has not evaluated 210 Monroe St., the house the city is trying to sell to be moved. In 1979, it was included in a Minnesota Historical Society survey of potentially historic buildings. In a letter, the historian at the time called it “one of the most architecturally significant buildings” she identified in the city and wrote that the exterior is a “very well-preserved example of the Italianate style of architecture.”

No determination was ever made.

Today, the preservation movement is growing, but decisions are not always easy, Gardner said.

“The preservation ethic is stronger than in the past,” he said. “I am realistic enough to know we don’t live in a snow globe. I completely understand when cities can’t save things and they’ve tried.”

But as a historian, he often roots for preservation.

“This is tangible history. You think of history in terms of books but these are the things we can see and touch,” Gardner said.

The fact that the city of Anoka has a heritage preservation commission is important, he said.

“You know somewhere in the city there is a preservation ethic, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

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